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Two little words to transform your conversations

What two little words can improve your conversations, at both work and home? They can also help you gather richer data and negotiate more effectively.

Words are important and choosing the right ones can make a big difference. When we start a question with ‘Why’, it can easily take on an accusing tone. For instance “Why did you do that?” is often a good way to start a heated argument. It can easily take on a demanding tone and imply that there is a right or wrong answer.

Instead, try these two words either on their own or to start a longer question. Tell me. “Tell me about that experience”, “Tell me about the reasons why that is important to you”, or after someone has alluded that there is more to the story, just say “Tell me”.

This is a great example of an open question, as opposed to a closed question which can be simply answered with a yes or no response. Open questions lead to much more disclosure of interesting information and you’ll often be surprised by what the respondent may share. This is a great technique to use either at work or at home, and can improve the quality of our conversations and relationships. 

“What’s a good follow up question?” you may ask. Simply say “Do go on” or “Tell me more”. Sometimes people just need a little bit of prodding to share even more useful information with us. 

Stephen Covey talked about “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” in his best seller The 7 habits of highly effective people. Asking open questions like this is a great way to do that. This then lays a fantastic foundation for building trust and understanding. Without this information we are just guessing or assuming we know what the other person is thinking and feeling. This is such a dangerous thing to do and can lead to a string of unintended consequences. 

Another phrase John has found useful is “I’m curious”. He will often say “I’m curious, can you tell me more about that please?”. He likes to think that this shows he is not wanting to judge them or the information they’re about to share. Instead John is asking because he simply wants to better understand the situation. John says he has found this works a treat and usually people will happily oblige!

A recently released book by Alexandra Carter, Ask for more: 10 questions to negotiate anything covers this amongst many other useful topics around negotiation and mediation.  

So now you know those two magic words, and perhaps a few other suggestions thrown in for good measure. 

Well, you’ve read our thoughts, now we’d like to hear yours! Add a comment below the blog post and tell us about your experiences with using open questions, including any tips and further ideas about it. We don’t want this to be just a one-way conversation – join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us! 

Thanks folks for reading this Enablers of change episode. Remember to subscribe if you would like to know when new episodes are available. And if you liked what you heard, please tell your friends so they can join the conversation!


Carter, A. (2020). Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything. Simon & Schuster.

Covey, S. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Simon & Schuster.

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David Bicknell
David Bicknell
3 years ago

Another good video – I recently participated in a verbal judo course, to help us that work in the compliance space in government. Your video ties in with active listening and questionnaire design: use open questions or requests, and phrased in a neutral or positive way.

Getting away from open ended questions (to someone feeling nervous) that sound like accusations can be a problem: ‘Why did you do that?’, ‘Please explain your reasons’. Sometimes we get the information we didn’t know we needed by going Zen!

3 years ago

Thanks folks. I’m with David B about listening. One good framework I was given last year had three levels:

  1. Internal. Your own inner dialogue. Not really engaged.
  2. Focussed. Help someone (and yourself) understand.
  3. Global. Listening to all the signals. Transmitting curiosity.
Siti Azizah
Siti Azizah
3 years ago

This is a good tip to get information from community. Start it with “Tell me” 🙂

Jane Wightman
Jane Wightman
8 months ago

Covey’s book is as relevant today as it was when it was first published – thank you for reminding us all to listen to understand John 🙂

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